You are here

In Memoriam / Carolyn Allen

Submitted by Henry J Laufenberg on May 26, 2023 - 3:03pm
Carolyn Allen
Professor Carolyn Allen

Department Chair Anis Bawarshi memorializes universally beloved Professor Carolyn Allen.

It is with sadness that I convey the news that emeritus Professor, colleague, and, to many of us, friend, Carolyn Allen, passed away on January 9th, 2023.  To many of us who had the honor of working with Carolyn during her 46 year career in the department, this is an enormous loss. Her dear friend and former divisional dean of social sciences, Professor Judy Howard, first notified us of Carolyn's decline three weeks before her passing, and some of us were able to send her letters of appreciation that Judy and others were able to read to Carolyn.  It is a comfort to know that she was surrounded by friends and passed away peacefully at home.

Carolyn was a scholar of modern and contemporary literature and culture; women writers; theories of affect; and theories of gender and sexuality.  Her publications include Following Djuna: Women Lovers and the Erotics of Loss; Provoking Feminisms (co-edited with Judy Howard); Feminisms at a Millennium (co-edited with Judy Howard); and Gender, Politics and Islam (co-edited with Therese Saliba and Judy Howard).

Upon Carolyn's retirement, then department chair Brian Reed wrote about Carolyn:

We all owe her a tremendous debt of gratitude. She has been elected nine times to our Executive Committee (twice chairing it), has twice served as our Director of Graduate Studies, has been Director of the Expository Writing Program, and was for many years our course scheduler. She's been on the Executive Committee of the Simpson Center and served on the College Council. Few faculty have given so much time and energy, so selflessly, to this department and institution.

She has also been an incredible mentor and inspiration to me during my nearly two decades here. She's always been available to give guidance when I most needed it, or to provide pointers on the latest developments in affect studies and feminist theory. I'm going to miss, something fierce, having her as my 'next-door-office-mate' on Padelford's fourth floor. I look forward, however, to her continuing, as an emerita, to be someone a fledgling dean can infallibly turn to for advice and wisdom.

When I joined the English department 23 years ago, Carolyn was one of the first to welcome me. I recall even before I started my first day that she had reached out with an invitation to review a manuscript for SIGNS: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, which she was co-editing at the time. I was intimidated, for sure, but I also felt it to be such an honor that she would entrust me with this responsibility. It also meant so much to me that she was able to recognize in my work as a rhetorician connections with a manuscript that engaged a feminist archive.

I encountered at that moment what I came to learn through countless examples from Carolyn about what it means to be a scholar whose intellect is wide ranging and capacious and welcoming, someone who creates space for others to belong. She was and continues to be a role model of what it means to be a generous, dedicated, and ethical colleague. Carolyn also modeled for many of us what it means to have strong convictions while also being able to deeply listen and to work collectively for the greater good. Her devotion to our work, to the department, to the university and the profession are exemplary.  

Carolyn was just as if not even more devoted to her community of friends. This was on full and beautiful display during Carolyn’s memorial (February 26, 2023--Urban Horticulture Center), and captured poignantly in her Seattle Times Obituary, reprinted below.  Carolyn will be enormously missed.

From Seattle Times Obituary:

Professor Carolyn Allen died on January 9, 2023 of chronic respiratory failure. A teacher, scholar, a lover of food, culture, and politics, foremost a woman who knew her mind, Carolyn's legacy includes countless friends, her family, former students, colleagues, admirers, and antagonists. 

Born February 22, 1943 to Hallien Hickman Johnson and Gardner Johnson, she grew up in Spokane with her siblings Stephen Johnson (Julee Johnson) and Mary Beth Johnson (Charlie Petrosky). Over the years, Steve and Mary Beth benefited greatly from Carolyn's advice and support. Carolyn was also a proud and attentive aunt to Steve and Julee's three children, Craig, Kristin, and Eric. 

Carolyn came of age when women were claiming a right to be heard and became one of many who found Virginia Woolf inspiring. Carolyn's early and enduring love for literature led her to join the faculty of the English Department at the University of Washington, where she introduced cutting edge courses on topics involving gender, sexuality, critical theory, and emotion. 

An extraordinary teacher and mentor, Carolyn did not preside over her classroom as an expert but met her students where they were, thus embodying feminism's nonhierarchical, collaborative approach and creating an environment where her students could learn from each other. Yet she also pushed them -- to read deeply, to explore their emotional responses to the material, then to push past the personal to the impersonal, to an understanding of social relations between people of different classes, races, genders, sexualities, etc. She pushed them to think about power: how literature reflects and creates power. Her most recent work involved affect theory, which describes how we construct society by operation of our senses, unseen and perhaps unconscious, driving the formation of communities and the expression of power.

If this is hard for some of us to grasp, you get a sense of Carolyn's capacious intellect. She was an expert. Still, for her nonliterary friends, she was always happy to solve a knotty grammar problem or to correct you, unsolicited, if you got wrong the name of a book, an author, or just about anything else literary. More formally, she was an incisive editor for students and colleagues. 

Carolyn contributed significantly to the administrative work of the English Department, no more so than as the Director of Graduate Studies. As such, she welcomed to the graduate program young academics interested in feminist studies, many of whom went on to populate English and Women Studies departments around the country. Her teaching, mentoring, and efforts to advance the careers of her students, and to support her junior colleagues, guarantee Carolyn will live on in the work these students and colleagues continue, a contribution honored by the UW's Distinguished Teaching Award. 

Carolyn's work as a theorist and editor also influenced the wider world of feminist scholarship, including as co-editor, with Professor Judy Howard from Sociology, of the feminist academic journal SIGNS: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, which grew in prestige and influence under their stewardship.
Carolyn also contributed to contemporary literature through her friendships and support of contemporary writers. As Rebecca Brown notes, Carolyn bridged "town and gown" as "a firm believer in literature for readers beyond the academy and outside the mainstream." By welcoming and supporting countless contemporary writers, she earned their eternal gratitude. 

Reluctantly, in 2018, after 46 years of service to the university, Carolyn retired. As a consolation, she threw a party no attendee will ever forget. Retirement or no, Carolyn did not stop teaching, as members of her three book groups will attest. Readers from all walks of life now understand how novels can be plot driven or character driven, how narrators can be unreliable, and the necessity of identifying varying points of view. It sounds like work, except for the laughter, warmth, and wine. 

Carolyn's appetites did not end at her love for literature, which competed with her love for food. She ate with gusto and, most happily, with friends and frequently at favored restaurants, making her popular with their owners who knew how particular Carolyn was about wine (well, about everything). Oddly, Carolyn, being a person especially averse to change (same job, same house, same furniture), abandoned a decades-long allegiance to Chardonnay for Pinot Noir. (Add that to the enigma list, for those of you keeping track.) She knew her grapes, knowledge she gathered in part from her many travels.
Carolyn did not so much love to travel, she needed to travel, touching down on multiple continents with friends known or, as with tours she took, friends in the making. She loved France most of all and gave speaking French her best shot. Nothing was as dear to her as a long, leisurely lunch in the Provence countryside. 

For 50 years, Carolyn lived in her cottage-like Montlake home where so often friends gathered to sit (or sag) on her yellow sofa (age indeterminate). Many mornings found her reading the New York Times on the heat register surrounded by books, photos of friends, artwork, vintage furniture, and antique rugs, always just where they were when you last saw them. On her coffee table, piles of student papers awaited grading along with overdue book reviews. Piles of magazines and unopened mail teetered nearby. She was organized, she'd insist, but her method was mysterious. 

She tended lovingly to her semi-wild yard, an inviting environment to friends and birds, also to some cats. When she cooked, the results were always delicious, and her kitchen was always a complete disaster. Mercifully, she refused cleanup assistance. 

Fervently, Carolyn hoped to die in this sanctuary, a wish fulfilled thanks to loving and professional caregivers and her care manager, as well as to the Wider Horizons community and the new friends she made there. Special recognition is also due her neighbors, Patti, Dick, Sarah, and Steve, friends with whom she shared E. McGraw but also on whom she depended when the need arose. Special recognition is also due the "care team" she appointed in 2020, her longtime friends Judy Howard, Pat Novotny, and Emily Warn, and her Wider Horizons friends, Kay Beisse and Sue Lerner. She worked us like crazy, teaching us what stubbornness really looks like. 

Of all her accomplishments and passions, the greatest was the cultivation and nurturing of friendships. She remained forever friends with her ex-husband, Jerry, and became friends with his wife, Betsy and a de facto aunt to their daughter, Leah. She held close her friends of vintages worthy of the wines she loved. (High school friends! Sorority sisters! Faculty friends from yore!) No less did she value the new and young members of her numerous and varied friendship circles. Imagine these many circles overlapping as in a Venn diagram, comprised of people who knew one another hardly or not at all, then winding up together at necessarily crowded parties. Friends of Carolyn is a club as populous as it is diverse, a fact revealing Carolyn's own complexity. To a greater degree than is common, we all knew a different Carolyn, but together we suffer her loss.